Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Does Racism Change People's Brains?

Riot police in Baltimore, Maryland, April 27th, 2015

Imagine a population forcibly uprooted from their homeland and transported somewhere they didn’t chose. Powerful people disparage the population’s historic traditions, suggesting, and sometimes requiring, the conquered population to adopt the conquerors’ culture. Even when the conquerors officially repent, they retain institutions of power that keep the conquered people squeezed into tight territory, denied meaningful work, and subjected to different laws than other people.

This situation could accurately describe the two populations most likely to incur both substance addictions and criminal records in North America: Native Americans and African Americans. This week’s violent outbursts in Baltimore, Maryland, have echoed themes from the last several months in Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere. But it also reflects tensions that exploded in Crown Heights, Watts, and the Siege of Wounded Knee. The themes remain unchanged.

But recent scientific advances shed new light on these old stories. We understand today, as prior generations didn’t, how systemic deprivation alters human neural structures. People who endure environments of constant stress and fear, especially in childhood, actually suffer dysfunctional brain development. Long-term exposure to desperate or fearful conditions cause human brains to adapt consummately; people start living in fight-or-flight status constantly.

Baltomore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Addiction specialist Dr. Gabor Maté writes about this regarding individual substance addicts raised in abusive, neglectful, or deprived environments. As their brains become unable to relinquish their full-panic responses, individuals require drugs (or behaviors, like gambling and overeating) to control their brains. Nobody’s ever studied this phenomenon on a culture-wide basis; I can’t imagine how such studies would even work. But we can extrapolate from individuals to society generally.

“Abusive, neglectful, or deprived environments” pretty accurately describes many minority-dominated communities. Work often isn’t forthcoming in these areas; the job applicant lines when three WalMarts recently opened in Washington, DC, dwarfed lines for Hollywood blockbusters. And that’s when work even exists. WalMart has received vocal criticism for offering starting wages about two dollars below its already paltry standards at stores near Indian reservations.

Recent reports on stop-and-frisk policies and police shootings have demonstrated how “law enforcement” often translates, for poor citizens, into social control. Police seldom face consequences for misconduct unless somebody captures events on video, as happened with Walter Scott’s recent death. And that’s just the big stuff. Matt Taibbi demonstrated, nearly a year ago, that poor brown people often get arrested for violating laws white people don’t even realize exist.

Over fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, described a remarkable inverse correlation: the less jobs existed in a neighborhood, the more fresh vegetables cost. Poor neighborhoods and towns often have only one grocery store, which can set prices wherever it likes, meaning a nutritionally balanced diet often exceeds minority workers’ pay scale. So: scarce work, high-handed police practices, and prohibitively expensive food. Things look bad.

One can understand the common conservative demand for parental intervention in such situations. Gabor Maté stresses the influence parents and other adults have over childhood brain development. But federal statistics indicate poor people work longer hours, under worse conditions, and cannot have such comprehensive influence. Public schools in these chronically impoverished communities, subsidized by property taxes on near-worthless properties, are generally too short-handed and poor to fill this gap.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts
Thus, urban poverty creates a perfect storm of maladaptive influences: fear of authority, lack of temperate guidance, listlessness, and malnutrition. Entire communities develop, across generations, in conditions similar to being raised by a cocaine addict. Then, when anxiety-driven populations flash over violently, we deploy soldiers into urban cores to silence the dissent. But this basically doubled down on the conditions that initially created the problem. Nothing gets solved, only postponed.

It’s tempting to insert myself into this commentary. Last fall, when the accumulation of niggling abuses caused me to lash out, sock a co-worker, and get fired, I maybe experienced a suggestion of what causes outbreaks of mass municipal violence. And maybe the penny-ante verbal abuse, denial of opportunities, and accumulation of official lies I suffered, was small beer beside what urban Black youth have suffered. But when people feel powerless, we’ll attempt grabbing power wherever we can.

Police power and political influence may silence Baltimore’s street violence. But if we mistake quietude for resolution, and think problems solved because the burning stops, we only deceive ourselves. Kicking the ball down the field demonstrably hasn’t worked; episodes of urban unrest are getting closer together. Our communities, arguably our society, needs abuse intervention. Because if we continue uninterrupted, our society-wide maladaptive thinking will soon become intractable, possibly even terminal.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Squatters on the Walk of Shame

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 48
Gabor Maté, MD, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction

Doctor Gabor Maté left a thriving private practice to counsel addicts in one of North America’s most brutal neighborhoods, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He has immersed himself in addict subculture, the battles won and the tears shed, and has come to recognize his own addictions, though not to substances. He’s made one important discovery: it’s hard to hate people you know. So he introduces readers to his hard-bitten, suffering clientele.

This book, a thick tome that rewards careful perusal, starts as a form of group autobiography. Not that he claims his patients’ stories as his own. Having worked among Vancouver’s poorest, most despised citizens for a decade, he remains an outsider, returning to his suburban home nightly. Yet he knows these survivors’ stories well enough to write of them: "The misery is extraordinary in the drug gulag, but so is the humanity."

The gulag metaphor isn’t incidental. Not only have Maté’s clients disproportionately suffered incarceration (some, he says, have spent more than half their adult lives in jail), but many face extended imprisonment within their own minds. Most come from backgrounds of abuse and neglect. Many of Maté’s First Nations patients have generational trauma and Reservation Sickness back to the first white encroachments. Drugs cannot explain their behaviors.

Where these people come from, what tragedies and Sisyphean challenges formed their outlooks, proves inextricable from their addictions. Nearly all were broken before they touched drugs: "'I'm not afraid of dying,' a client told me. 'Sometimes I'm more afraid of living.'" This gives Maté his direct line into science. Transitioning from storytelling, Maté becomes an incisive researcher, distilling massively complex science into plain English without losing power.

Dr. Gabor Maté
At some pivotal moment in childhood development, Maté writes, addicts lack the unconditional love children require. It’s actually more difficult than that, but stripped to its rudiments, all people suffering long-term intractable addiction didn’t have loving guidance, as children, to control their emotions. Children, by definition, cannot handle stress independently. Our developing brains outsource self-control to responsible adults; if such adults aren’t around, our brains adapt accordingly.

Not for nothing, Maté observes, to many addicts compare the heroin rush to receiving a warm, lingering hug. The un-nurtured infant brain never develops the ability to guide itself through stress; fundamentally, that squalling child survives, desperate and scared, within every addict’s brain. The deprived infant becomes the terrified adult. "The dominant emotions suffusing all addictive behavior,” Maté writes, “are fear and resentment—an inseparable vaudeville team of unhappiness."

Don’t start feeling self-righteous, though, because you don’t wolf narcotics. Maté describes equitable structures in behavioral addictions, like abusive overeating, philandering, and thrill-seeking. Some of Maté’s most engaging chapters describe his own struggles with workaholism and binge-buying music CDs. "What seems non-adaptive and self-harming in the present was, at some point in our lives, an adaptation to help us endure what we had to go through then."

It’s difficult to read certain chapters without powerful twinges. Many women addicts he counsels, Maté writes, obsessively collect teddy bears among their drug-fueled squalor. Others have lost their children, but cannot bear to be parted from their small furry animals. Remember, he’s describing the poorest, most despised people in Canada, and all they want, amid the burglaries and self-mutilation and prostitution that subsidizes their drug dependency, is something to love.

This makes current approaches to drug prohibition doubly costly. We pay social costs to capture, prosecute, and imprison junkies, yes, and civil libertarians have long protested this lopsidedness. But the trauma of imprisonment compounds the conditions that created addicts’ problems to begin with. Nobody taught these people how to endure being alone with themselves, so what, let’s throw them in solitary? Who does that help?

As Maté describes it, criminal justice approaches become just plain mean. But more: we deny addicts social services, meaningful jobs, and basic medical care. This makes no sense, as Maté writes: "If our guiding principle is that a person who makes his own bed ought to lie in it, we should immediately dismantle much of our health care system." Yet somehow, we accept that further dehumanizing people already stripped of common humanity will help.

Addiction isn’t a story of “those people.” It’s the story of how we construct ourselves, and help construct other people, every day. Maté essentially paraphrases Thomas Aquinas when he writes: "In the final analysis, it's not the activity or object itself that defines an addiction but our relationship to whatever is the external focus of our attention or behavior." This means us.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Rain Demons

Paige McKenzie, The Haunting of Sunshine Girl

An awkward, introverted teenager thinks her life is over when she relocates to a rainy Washington town. No, seriously, stick with me. Sunshine Griffith doesn’t need much in life, just her quirky antique wardrobe, her best friend, and her youthful, high-spirited mother. But when Mom’s job uproots them to gloomy Ridgemont, Washington, she feels adrift and useless. This feeling only grows when Sunshine realizes a ghost lives upstairs.

Paige McKenzie starred in, and apparently co-created, the Sunshine Girl YouTube channel, producing fifty-seven episodes of Sunshine’s haunted house story between 2010 and 2012. This book, and an upcoming second volume, apparently presage an anticipated big-screen reboot, as McKenzie fleshes out details omitted from the original performance. The result isn’t particularly original, but remains nonetheless engaging.

That first night, a little girl’s laughing voice and prancing footsteps echo throughout Sunshine’s house. But things quickly turn grim. Her ghost has bizarre, almost bipolar swings, wanting to play games and becoming suddenly destructive when Sunshine can’t oblige. A mournful pall hangs over Sunshine’s strangely large and well-appointed high school. Then, one stormy night, the haunting spills over, and dark forces turn her only ally, her mother, against her.

McKenzie gives her young adult audience many traits they’ve come to expect from these stories—then turns them on their heads. She gives Sunshine a handsome suitor whose clever insights penetrate her crushing mysteries, but the young man’s touch makes Sunshine physically nauseous. She gives Sunshine a dark, morally ambiguous mentor, only to reveal that this mentor has ambitions that don’t necessarily require Sunshine to survive.

Paige McKenzie, in a promotional still from
The Haunting of Sunshine Girl on YouTube
This means the story feels both very familiar and strangely new. McKenzie evidently cherry-picks her favorite tropes from recent teen horror romances, then reassembles them in a funhouse mirror. Everything looks familiar, yet distorted: we recognize increments of Bella Swann, Clary Fray, and the Halliwell Sisters from TV’s Charmed. Yet McKenzie revitalizes them with her personal touches, and doesn’t just replay what we’ve already seen elsewhere.

Despite mounting evidence, Sunshine’s mother refuses to accept the ghostly third tenant in their rain-soaked rental. Her Agent Scully-ish reliance on empirical science precludes the possibility of lingering spirits. So Sunshine, aided by her crush Nolan (I love you, don’t touch me!), begins collecting evidence. But they quickly discover that doesn’t refuse to see ghosts, she’s unable. Seems Sunshine’s strange, long-buried heritage might make her insights unique.

I must acknowledge one trait I distinctly appreciate. McKenzie doesn’t force Sunshine into melodramatic “boo” moments or contrived chapter-ending cliffhangers. Despite this story’s filmic origins, McKenzie (with ghostwriter Alyssa Sheinmel) translates events into book parameters without leaving a huge scar. Novelizing a web series could’ve created a disappointing hybrid book, neither fish nor fowl. Instead, McKenzie emphasizes the creeping dread and psychological horror which print does so well.

Dark spirits transfer from Sunshine’s house, into her mother. Their formerly warm relationship quickly sours. Several times, Sunshine, our first-person narrator, reports that this is the first time she’s ever lied to her mother, the first time they’ve ever had a knock-down-drag-out fight, the first time she’s ever cut class. Simultaneously, the intervening miles prove too much for another relationship: her best friend since second grade grows bored with Sunshine’s dramas. Only Sunshine has the power to exorcise the spirits severing her human bonds.

Paging Dr. Freud, stat!

Recently, I read some online hipster grumbling about the number of YA novels featuring sixteen-year-old girls, which present incipient adulthood metaphorically as supernatural or science fictional. Admittedly, the theme is common; yet I have no problem with it. Because many youth in today’s atomized, hyper-individualistic world hit adulthood unprepared, it must surely seem as horrific for them as it did for us.

For generations, authors have used metaphors to describe adulthood. From the X-Men to Ender Wiggin to Bella Swann, artists have described young adulthood as war, dawning superpowers, monsters, and beyond. And while not everybody likes Ender’s Game or Twilight equally, these books’ youthful, struggling audiences have never needed your approval. They see themselves in their heroes, because they know what it means to be a stranger in their own bodies.

How audiences receive this book probably depends on what they hope to find. McKenzie doesn’t tell an original, groundbreaking story, no; it’s difficult to cover two pages without recognizing some familiar trope from today’s busy YA publishing market. But McKenzie owns them, and more than once, she managed to twist something familiar into surprising pretzels, upending my jaded stoicism. No, this book isn’t original. But it sure is good.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Self-Contained Woman

Kate Bolick, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own

Veteran magazine writer Kate Bolick always wanted a spouse, children, a family of her own. Yet despite having multiple relationships, some quite successful, she found herself pushing forty, still unmarried, by society’s standards now a “spinster.” So she did the only thing she knew how to do: she began writing her life’s story, to better understand her situation. Her discoveries could help many women (and men!) understand the role of marriage in modern American society.

Women find themselves particularly pressured to pair off. Men certainly feel marital pressure, but words like “bachelor” and “old geezer” lack the moral opprobrium attached to names we call unmarried women: Spinster. Crone. Hag. Yet today, for the first time ever, unmarried adults outnumber their married peers in America. This seeming contradiction sent Bolick spinning backward through time, investigating our changing social roles, from Colonial teenage marriage, to Victorian frigidity, to whatever we have today.

Along the way, she discovered what she calls her “five awakeners,” female authors whose lives, expressed through their written works, exemplified something of what she sought. Two of Bolick’s awakeners, Maeve Brennan and Neith Boyce, are little-remembered outside Manhattan literary circles today. But three others—Edna St. Vincent Millay, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Edith Wharton—number among America’s most influential writers and thinkers. All wrote about marriage, singlehood, and relationships. They reached wildly divergent conclusions.

Raised in a bookish family in picturesque New England, Bolick simply took certain things for granted. This includes marriage and family as life’s destination. It worked for Mom, right? But after her mother’s early death, Bolick discovered her mother actually bridled at marital domesticity, in ways invisible to her children. As she attempted dating and relationships, Bolick began replicating her mother’s deeply conflicted patterns. Except she had freedom to say no, which prior generations lacked.

Kate Bolick is also an Atlantic regular contributor
As her journey into adulthood carries her from Newburyport, to California, to Boston, to Manhattan, she progresses through several relationships with men. Some prove fruitful. Most are fun and fulfilling while they last. But none proves permanent. Though she cannot express her motivations at the time, she realizes (while writing this book, she claims) that personal fulfillment, the desire to be self-supporting and more fully human, matters more to her than the ring and dress.

Her awakeners provide remarkable guidance for Bolick’s guided exploration of single life. Though all five tried their hands at marriage, none accepted the traditional “wife” role. Wharton and Brennan walked away from ill-considered early marriages; Millay and Gilman both married later, entering their marriages on their own terms. And Boyce was a chameleon, now happily writing as the Girl Bachelor, now married, now lingering in the liminal space between. Marriage, apparently, isn’t just one thing.

This narrative highlights the pleasures of long, possibly permanent singlehood. But Bolick doesn’t blush from perils, either. Edna St. Vincent Millay transitioned from youthful love poet to an embittered shadow of herself. Charlotte Perkins Gilman committed suicide. Maeve Brennan, upon whom Bolick lavishes the most page space, died alone in a care home, victim of some ill-defined mental illness. Yet if they died poorly, they lived richly and well. Bolick is both honest and daring.

In the balance between the books she reads, and the life she truly embraces, Bolick makes important discoveries. Like: modern society gives unmarried women unprecedented liberty to be human beings first, women second. Like: women should feel free to enjoy relationships in the present, without feeling pressured to make lifetime commitments. Like: in learning more about her heroines’ lives, she not only discovers greater depth in their writings, but gains definition for her life, too.

Bolick, in this book, attempts the same feat Samantha Ellis achieved earlier this year: a blend of autobiography, literary criticism, and feminist theory. These two books aren’t interchangeable. Bolick treats her favored authors, and their books, more broadly than the incisive Ellis, while interweaving more of her personal memoir. But both investigate how books define what independent, undaunted womanhood means in today’s culture. It might be fair to call Bolick’s and Ellis’s books companion volumes.

Therefore, this book works both as autobiography and as literary criticism. Besides shining new light on three well-known and deeply respected classic authors, she brings two nigh-forgotten heroines into deserved public light. And she does so by proving that “classic” literature matters because it speaks to us today. Bolick’s autobiographical struggles to make a writing life draw us into the lives of these late awakeners. She persuades us that we can be happy singles, too.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Hello, My Name is Kevin, and I'm an Addict

In one of my earliest memories, my father holds me in his lap. I might be three years old, possibly younger. He reads to me from a Little Golden Books version of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. However, the illustrations depict the MGM movie adaptation, all bright colors and Judy Garland cutting a rug with Ray Bolger. I’m already able to read; have been for a year; but Dad still reads to me.

Years later, my mother would recount other parents watching me, reading raptly, and wonder aloud: how do you get your son to read so much? She responded, forcing a laugh to make things sound lighthearted: the real trick is getting him to do anything other than read. Very true. Books became my singular dedication. I bought them faster than I could read them. Whenever we relocated, moving men entered my room and saw dollar signs.

Fast forward. I’m forty years old. I live alone with two cats and a bookshelf in literally every room but my bathroom. My living room has an entire wall dedicated to bookshelves, extending into the dining area and butting against my kitchen. I own few valuables, and don’t fear burglary, since there’s nothing robbers would consider worth taking. Yet I fear fire. My entire apartment is highly combustible, and my out-of-print books are virtually irreplaceable.

By any reasonable standard, I’m an addict. I’d rather read books than interact with friends, cook dinner, or find better-paying work. I resent interruptions to my reading time, like boring old jobs or bathroom breaks. I read while eating. I fall asleep reading, and when I awaken, I spend thirty minutes reading before brushing my teeth. If anyone, even my dearest friend, phones while I’m reading, I’ve been known to lash out with childlike rage.

It’s taken me years to recognize myself as addicted. We generally associate addiction with substances, especially illegal drugs, or socially reviled substances like booze or nicotine. But I’ve been reading on addiction processes lately. Chief has been Canadian physician Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, the most thoroughgoing explanation I’ve ever seen of the addicted mind. This involves all addictions, including addictive behaviors, like gambling, philandering, overeating, and Internet or social media addiction.

Addictions arise from some unmet need. Beyond physical requirements like food and shelter, humans share three fundamental needs: human contact, creative activity, and meaningful work. In greater or lesser ways, post-industrial society denies all three. We spend unprecedented time alone, engage passive activities like TV watching, and do meaningless work to make others rich. These aren’t mere philosophical precepts. Neuroscience has demonstrated that need-starved brains become physically miswired. Trapped people cannot meet their own needs.

Addictions, in the short term, close these gaps. Dr. Maté aptly quotes one patient noting that the first heroin rush feels like a warm hug. Most substance addicts were abused, neglected, or ignored at key childhood moments. The same applies, in less visible ways, for behavior addicts. Gamblers chase the need to not lose. Overeaters plug their psychological emptiness by striving to feel physically full. And a book addict… remembers that moment in Daddy’s lap.

When I was six, I won a fishing pole in a youth league competition. I begged Dad to take me fishing; he wasn’t interested. Two years later, we donated that pole somewhere, still in the package. Many times, I begged Dad to play catch. I hate sports, but wanted to play with Dad, my hero. He spent twenty-five minutes constantly critiquing my stance, until I fled in tears. I never begged to play catch again.

Don’t mistake me: I love my father, and believe he loves me. But we’re incompatible people. I wanted to share experiences with him; he expressed his love by working. If he wasn’t working for pay, he was doing home repairs, yard work, something. I’ll avoid lay psychoanalysis of Dad’s workaholism, but its effects on me linger. The older I got, the further away he stayed. But a boy never stops needing to feel Daddy’s love.

So I began escaping into reading. I intellectually know my father’s love, but I last directly felt it when he held me and read to me. Books became a manifestation of love. When I read, I’m not alone. Daddy loves me when I read. When I vanish into a book, any book, I’m three years old again. Daddy’s arms surround me, his lap supports me, his voice soothes me. When I read, I feel loved.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Secret Disaster Behind Business Triumph

Joe Plumeri, The Power of Being Yourself: A Game Plan for Success—by Putting Passion into Your Life and Work

I have a conflicted history with business books. I read and review them because I believe, hypothetically, they have power to positively impact society using market forces. Also because I have entrepreneurial aspirations. Yet I keep getting frustrated because business authors invent doctrines that flatly contradict my experience doing blue-collar work. So I wish I liked the non-dogmatic Joe Plumeri better. But he’s blind to his own implications.

After 36 years working the brokerage floors at several corporations that later merged into Citigroup, Joe Plumeri became the first-ever American CEO of the British insurance firm Willis Group. He introduced working-class democratic touches, like an open-door executive policy, and helped transform a successful but stodgy firm into a global economic mover. Along the way he had ripple effects on London’s massively influential financial markets.

Plumeri insists he accomplished this sweeping transformation by remaining true to his hardscrabble Trenton, New Jersey, roots. Grandson of immigrants, his grandfather flashed cash and got Babe Ruth to play an exhibition game in Trenton. His father used Triple-A ball to reinvigorate Trenton’s failing infrastructure. Plumeri comes from a long line of people who use optimism, hard work, and the Boys of Summer to breathe pride into Trenton’s struggling economy.

Though Plumeri organizes his book into eight “principles,” he resists the common temptation to assume anyone could derive universal checklists from his success. Rather than pretending he’s an object lesson on how business gets done, he writes an inspirational memoir designed to motivate aspiring entrepreneurs like me. His fist-pumping enthusiasm is certainly contagious, and I can imagine his passion fueling others to trust their hard-won instincts.

Joe Plumeri

In his introduction, Plumeri mentions his firstborn son, Christian, died following lengthy struggles with substance abuse. I’ve read substantially on addiction issues recently, particularly the writings of Dr. Gabor Maté. These authors agree that many addicts whose struggles resist straightforward treatment share backgrounds, circumstances, and behavior. Plumeri’s thumbnail of his son could’ve come from a Cognitive Psych textbook:
...if [Christian] got mad, he’d usually cry too because it bugged him so much to be mad. If you showed him love, if you were there for him, he responded. He was great fun to be around, a good friend to his friends, and, as the oldest brother, he was very caring and always there for his sister, looking after her. The kid was full of heart and eager to please, but when you disappointed him the hurt preyed on him and left him confused and directionless. He was always looking for something to fill the void but never finding it.
I couldn’t better describe the psyche of a child who has never learned to control his reaction to outside influences, whether loving or stress-inducing. As Dr. Maté writes in detail, children lack ability to govern stress reactions, and require adults to provide outside guidance. The aid adults provide, or don’t, shapes their growing neural structure. Addiction, whether to substances or behaviors or whatever, results from maladaptive brain development.

Plumeri describes himself as a “workaholic” repeatedly, and with evident pride. He also describes his own father driving around Trenton, showing his kids the flashiest homes, insisting that work brings reward, and the recognition that accompanies it. Though Plumeri never says so explicitly, his father plainly made paternal acceptance dependent on accomplishment. Now Plumeri cannot stop seeking his late father’s fleeting approval.

Not even when it costs him his son.

To his credit, Plumeri acknowledges his culpability in Christian’s self-destruction. He dedicates an entire chapter to his give-and-take with Christian, conceding that his grueling work schedule, extended absences, and pursuit of external goals pushed his son away. He writes: “I have to live with that failure—but you don’t.” But then he galivants onto the next topic in his autobiography… about maintaining resilient optimism!

Does Plumeri not recognize that Christian’s suffering arose, partly, from his own inability to cope with addictive behavior? Well, yes, he does, and says so, but he doesn’t let that recognition change him. Workaholism, alcoholism, drug abuse, and OCD are all expressions of largely the same circumstances. The only difference between Plumeri’s work obsession and Christians drugs is, society treats one as admirable.

Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe I’m projecting one book onto another where it doesn’t fit. But I doubt it. Plumeri starts well, and if Christian didn’t appear, I’d probably applaud his story. But before the halfway mark, everything transforms; Plumeri becomes a cautionary tale in the dangers of chasing public acclaim without counting the private cost.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Notes Toward a New American Stoic

David Brooks, The Road to Character

I’m sure dedicated trend-watchers must view reality TV, political scandals, and the eternal Kim-n-Kanye peep show with unalloyed dismay. Especially for social conservatives, yoked with a sense of moral obligation to the larger society, they must feel an especial impulse to intervene, to stand athwart the downhill slalom they perceive society following, and holler “Stop!” Bill Bennett felt that impulse twenty years ago. The feeling is older than dirt.

David Brooks has represented the voice of moderate Republicans in various mainstream and partisan newspapers since 1983. In various supposed leftist bastions like PBS and the New York Times, he’s become famous for upholding common conservative (as opposed to party hard-liner) opinions. It seems he’s perhaps grown tired of his own voice, because in his introduction to this book, he laments his own self-seeking, and that of today’s generation.

That should’ve been my first warning. I wanted to like this book. I’ve been reading, in my off hours, on Stoic philosophy recently, and though Brooks never uses that word, his collection of exemplar biographies on the principles of admirable character replicates the heart of classical Greco-Roman Stoicism. Yippee. Except the longer I read, the more I noticed Brooks evidently occupies a divided world. All virtue lives in the past; all wickedness lives in the present.

In one of the weirder passages I’ve seen from literary criticism, C.S. Lewis quotes Chretien de Troyes, writing in the 1170s, that “the age of chivalry is dead.” Homer believed his was a dying age, inferior to the Argive Greeks who fought at Troy. Men of affairs have always considered their era a ghost of some honored past, a past somehow populated by giants and uncluttered by pedestrian people. Consider these quotes from Brooks:
“Today, when we say that people are repressed, we tend to mean it as a criticism.”

“It is important to point out how much the sense of vocation is at odds with the prevailing contemporary logic.”

“Today, the word ‘sin’ has lost its power.”
David Brooks
Realize, Brooks isn’t discussing Lost Atlantis or the virtuous queens of Avalon. He’s describing people of the Twentieth Century, public personalities like Dwight Eisenhower and Dorothy Day. Later, Brooks spools backward to George Eliot, Samuel Johnson, and even St. Augustine, but early on, his examples come from living memory. The outer limits of living memory, admittedly (Ike died when Brooks was seven years old), but living memory nonetheless.

Therein lies my problem with this book. Brooks has created a primer on moral rectitude and self-discipline, based on principles I wholly endorse and agree with. But he’s created a crystal trap modern readers cannot overlook: that everything in live used to be good, and now it isn’t. Virtue dwells uniquely in antiquity, while today’s modern age is populated by such complete venality that we’re essentially fighting the avalanche.

Then, very late in most chapters, Brooks will suddenly throw in revelations that his subjects actually couldn’t sustain the virtues for which he extols them. Labor organizer turned FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins so thoroughly vanished into her work, her daughter could only rebel by profligate living and carousal. Eisenhower was so fixated on his moral core that he slept through major trends of his Presidency, including the dawning civil rights movement.

I stopped taking Brooks seriously when he conceded that Eisenhower, for all his virtues, nevertheless abandoned his wartime mistress, Kay Summersby, with a mere letter. Wait, Ike kept a mistress? During the war?? While married to Mamie??? That somehow never made my official history textbooks. Following all the hero-making about Ike’s glamorous “self-conquest,” such intemperance in a commanding officer is deeply disturbing. Ask David Petraeus.

My problem, therefore, is with Brooks’ presentation. He completely segregates virtue from ordinary life, both in time, and within his subjects. He populates the past with presidents, saints, and superhumans. Then he assumes the worst celebrity excess represents modernity. The well-intentioned product is frankly discouraging.

Again, I don’t disagree with Brooks’ vision of virtue. Though salted with highly emotive Christian language, Brooks deftly describes classical Stoicism, without using that word that’s been cheapened by misuse. But I’ve said before: Stoicism, as a character-molding force, is a phenomenon whose time has surely come again. Please consider the original source:
Epictetus, Discourses
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Seneca, Letters

PS. Early on, Brooks wishes somebody would write a book about how Americans’ changing experience with death reflects Americans’ changing public morality. Please consider Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. You’re welcome.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Blind Businessman's Bluff

Ram Charan, The Attacker's Advantage: Turning Uncertainty into Breakthrough Opportunities

Authors and audiences alike have heckled me with names like Socialist, “an obvious Communist,” and “far-left” for my business book reviews. Not so. I keep agreeing to review business books because I have entrepreneurial aspirations, and I await the one that’ll mentor me through my planned shoestring start-up venture. And awaiting. And awaiting. Clearly I’m not done waiting yet.

Ram Charan worked his way from his family’s rural Delhi shoe store, through Harvard Business School, to the heights of corporate governance. Along the way, he recognized two categories of business uncertainty. There’s operational uncertainty, like markets and labor values, that you just live with. Then there’s structural uncertainty, the unpredictability that breaks weak leaders and makes strong ones. Charan wants to help you master and exploit structural uncertainty.

I realized I’d let myself in for a bumpy ride when I read this early quote: “The single greatest instrument of change… is the advancement of the mathematical tools called algorithms and their related sophisticated software.” I’ve become allergic to Taylorist command-control management, reinforced by mathematical controls. Anyway I presume that’s what Charan means, because he repeatedly uses the word “algorithm” thereafter without bothering to define it.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an algorithm as “a procedure or set of rules used in calculation and problem-solving.” Venn diagrams and logic grids are algorithms. Presumably Charan intends calculus-based algorithms, of the type taught in MBA programs, but he never says so. This, unfortunately, epitomizes what reading this entire book is like: strings of bromides and professional buzzwords, opaque to those not initiated into today’s business tabernacle.

Ram Charan
Following this, Charan’s narrative becomes a laundry list of bromides so expansive, punch-drunk executives could make them mean anything they want. He anchors his declamation on platitudes like “Perceptual acuity,” “The ability to see a new path forward and commit to it,” and “Skill in making the organization steerable and agile.” No business professional would dispute these chestnuts. But ask five CEOs to define them, you’ll get five incompatible answers.

Charan makes sweeping pronouncements on how you (yes, you!) can run your business like Fortune 500 CEOs using Charan’s principles. But very few of his object lessons run longer than two paragraphs. He dedicates occasional short chapters to unpacking some corporation’s success, but he repeatedly relies upon their self-reported media and press releases. Charan essentially becomes others’ unpaid press agent and mythmaker.

One example struck me. He wonders why Sony, inventor of the Walkman, failed to anticipate the digital revolution and got blindsided by Apple. But I’ve read Duncan J. Watts. Apple’s iPod soared; Sony’s MiniDisc landed with a thud. Really, that’s emblematic of business today. Watts’ take-away: businessmen aren’t soothsayers. “Sony’s choices happened to be wrong while Apple’s happened to be right.”

Beyond all this, Charan is an inveterate name-dropper. He wants you to know he’s had drinks with everyone from Indian telecom maestro Vinod Kumar to former GE CEO Jack “the Layoff King” Welch. Consider just some of these self-congratulatory statements:
“In the early 1990s… I ran into [Jack] Welch on an elevator.”

“I was in a board meeting at Seagrams, which at the time owned Universal Music, the world’s largest music company, when Napster had just recently come onto the scene.”

“In May 2012 a director of Conoco Phillips discussed with me an issue he had been considering: whether to expand in India.”

“One day I was sitting at a lunch table during Microsoft’s yearly CEO Summit with Warren Buffett and eight other people.”
It doesn’t take many of these to realize, Ram Charan’s greatest business asset isn’t his acquired acumen. If you hire Ram Charan as your in-house management consultant, you gain access to Ram Charan. And you get one space closer to the entire Fortune 500 in the Kevin Bacon game.

Ram Charan offers the false promise that, should you merely adopt his simple stipulations, your business will run like the great world-changers that… um… imploded America’s economy in 2007. But what makes Charan’s prescriptions better than the hundreds of others coming from America’s business press this year? Watts again: “we can never be sure how much these explanations really explain, versus simply describe.”

Maybe I’m the problem. Maybe because I live in Flyover Country, and don’t hope to start the kind of business that’ll ever merge with Chinese corporations, these books talk past me. But I doubt it. I really think this showcase of meaningless bromides is essentially a billboard for Charan’s management consultancy. And I can do without that moonshine.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

America Is Going To (Legalized) Pot

Bruce Barcott, Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America

Like it or not, the era of legalized weed is upon us. Four states and DC have passed recreational marijuana laws by popular referendum, while medical marijuana is legal in so many states, I can’t find an accurate up-to-date count. Some people like this, some hate it, and I still struggle. Regardless of your position, though, the changing climate is real. Seattle-area journalist Bruce Barcott decided the time was right to investigate what that means.

Barcott admits initially having dim opinions about legalized marijuana. Despite college experimentation, his opinion of pot, and pot smokers, was largely based on ONDCP leaflets, DARE seminars, and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No.” Then Washington Initiative 502 crossed his electoral view. Unlike Colorado’s “pot is safer than liquor” bill, Washington’s referendum turned on issues of justice. Ham-handed enforcement of federal and state drug laws unfairly targeted Hispanics, African Americans, and white trash, with Orwellian consequences.

Like many fair-minded citizens before him, Barcott realized he didn’t know enough. Not just enough facts, but enough people. He confesses thinking medical marijuana was for “just late-stage cancer patients or pain-faking stoners.” When he actually met the well-scrubbed lawyers pushing Initiative 502, the nerdy entrepreneurs spearheading commercial pot, or the remarkably ordinary people using—professional dancers with aching joints, AIDS sufferers, decorated soldiers with PTSD nightmares—he found a very different, more nuanced story.

It wouldn’t be unfair to compare Barcott’s narrative to Homer’s Odyssey. We could compare his discovery of cannabis creams (that don’t induce highs) for his aching joints to Circe’s island, or Colorado’s Cannabis Cup 2014 to the Lotus Eaters. But more than metaphors, what matters is that Barcott traveled a world that, amid changing laws and ethics, is hardly recognizable, even to anyone who visited Denver just five years ago. The people drive Barcott’s journey.

Bruce Barcott
People like Tripp Keber, a Colorado entrepreneur who hopes to become America’s first marijuana billionaire. Unable, by Federal law, to store pot proceeds in chartered banks, he instead invests his profits in increasingly sophisticated marketable products. His intricate plans, forward thought, and technological savvy make pot-peddling almost respectable. Tripp’s transition from buying sketchy weed beneath sketchy kitchen tables, to spearheading massive marijuana trade shows, forms a thread weaving throughout the Colorado leg of Barcott’s journey.

People like Dennis Peron, Barcott’s most memorable interview, despite only featuring in one chapter. Back in 1990, Peron’s partner, like many Castro District homosexuals, required intensive AIDS drugs that caused vomiting, making keeping the drugs down impossible. Smoking weed bypassed the spewing, but procuring weed landed Peron in jail, so his allies managed to pass America’s first medical marijuana referendum. Thus today’s two great upheavals, same-sex marriage and legalized pot, emerged from the same chrysalis.

People like Kevin Sabet, a leading voice defending status quo drug enforcement and advocating tough marijuana interventions. His lucrative nationwide speaking tours have made him legendary in anti-drug circles. Yet Barcott describes him lecturing a roomful of Seattle drug cops, who roll their eyes as Sabet rehashes anti-drug propaganda decades out of date. As Barcott writes: “When confronted with new evidence that challenged the beliefs of those in power, those in power dismissed the evidence.”

This book overlaps with Johann Hari’s Chasing the Scream. They draw similar conclusions that most current anti-drug rhetoric is driven more by moral umbrage than scientific facts. They both pin responsibility for this hysteria first on founding drug enforcer Harry J. Anslinger, then on successor politicians scared of being called “soft.” They agree that current knowledge, coupled with changing social attitudes, means the time has come to change America’s approach to drugs, and drug patients.

But these books aren’t essentially interchangeable. Hari addresses the entire global Drug War, from Anslinger to today; Barcott focuses on America, pot, and mainly the present. Hari is synoptic; Barcott is specific. Hari strives, sometimes unsuccessfully, to maintain journalistic dispassion; Barcott jumps into the story, samples the product, and, Boswell-like, helps create the story by asking dangerous questions. Hari and Barcott aren’t doing the same thing. Read both together to better understand the entire controversy.

Society’s changing drug standards are real, happening right now. History stands still for nobody. And whether you advocate more and broader legalization, or prefer strengthening today’s drug laws and enforcing them rigorously, you need serious facts. Anybody who’s smoked a doobie, seen they didn’t turn maniacal, and thereafter stopped trusting propaganda, knows why the debate is turning. Rather than political camouflage, we need factual transparency. This debate will happen, and we mustn’t get left behind.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Taming the Screen-Eyed Monster

Golden Krishna, The Best Interface Is No Interface

Design professional Golden Krishna has become frustrated with graphical user interfaces. The novelty has worn off putting every important function into a smartphone app, and the ubiquity of touchscreens has made ordinary people subservient to their technology. Think about it: does your refrigerator really need WiFi compatibility and a streaming Pandora feed?  Even better, is driving enhanced when drivers have in-dash Facebook demanding their attention?

Krishna comes from a background in User Experience (UX), a design paradigm emphasizing how we can maximize users’ positive response to new technology. This often parallels with another discipline, User Interface (UI), which specifically focuses on graphical user interfaces—or as they’re called in the industry, “interfaces.” These two disciplines have become so entwined that many job-seeker websites now advertise UX/UI as a single field, confining end-user experiences to a screen.

No, says Krishna, this is wrong. This attitude encourages sameness, resulting in finished products not sufficiently differentiated, and poorly attuned to user needs. Design meetings begin with enthusiastic goals to re-envision some task we all undertake; they finish by creating another smartphone app, impractical website (with fifty-page usage agreement), or another screen stuck somewhere it doesn’t belong. Graphic interfaces on curbside trash cans? Really?

Rather than repeating past success, Krishna advocates three core principles:
  1. “Embrace Typical Processes Instead of Screens”
  2. “Leverage Computers Instead of Serving Them”
  3. “Adapt to Individuals”
Golden Krishna
Krishna refines these three principles into new outlooks on the design process. He asks his colleagues questions that have gone largely unasked: is this process better, more efficient, more useful than what came before? (Is a smartphone app to unlock your car more practical than your key? No.) Can simple, screen-free technology make difficult tasks simpler? Can household technology learn user preferences—without cumbersome, insulting screen apps?

In some respects, Krishna’s vision overlaps with prior visionaries and critics; Jaron Lanier springs to mind. Both inveigh against technological passivity. Computers and other doodads are fine, Krishna asserts, if they serve human needs and make human life simpler. But addictively colorful phone apps, unhelpful multistep processes for simple tasks, and ad space colonizing screens like Spanish moss has made life palpably less simple and enjoyable.

Technology is capable of learning human needs. While it’s impossible for designers to create separate experiences for the millions, potentially billions, of individual users, technology is capable of adapting itself. Krishna cites several examples, from a simple fuzzy-logic home thermostat, to Deep Blue, the chess-playing computer that beat Garry Kasparov, of devices and systems that see human uniqueness as a virtue, not a bug.

To emphasize his message, Krishna has made this book a paragon of design. Though running north of 200 pages plus back matter, Krishna’s text is actually much shorter, with visual diagrams, photos, dialogs, and non-traditional use of white space. He writes with the compressed energy of a TED talk, and uses his book to demonstrate his principles. He doesn’t wallow in nitty-gritty tutorials. Instead, he invites readers to share an evolving vision.

A prior reviewer wrote: “Make no mistake: This is a sermon. It's not a practical guide. It's not a set of concrete steps to improve.” If I may speak for Mr. Krishna, that’s essentially the point. UX/UI has become dominated by step-by-step instructions and closed-process approaches, which render customers and designers both functionally passive. Krishna speaks against that technique, demanding content creators and experience designers remain actively engaged with their product.

Krishna’s stated principles will undoubtedly receive much criticism. Not just from those whose career paths rely on tech companies doing what they’ve always done, either. He repeatedly stresses the importance of design ethics, of prioritizing users’ well-being above “monetizing eyeballs.” Can you imagine, say, Mark Zuckerberg telling shareholders that this quarter’s dividends have gone down because he’d rather do right by users than sell ad space?

Me neither.

That said, he’s not wrong. Today’s epidemic of people glued eyes-first to laptops, tablets, and phones didn’t just happen; UX/UI professionals designed it. Enrapt audiences are good customers and, more accurately good product which corporations can tranch and resell to ad peddlers (see also Marc Goodman). Much as I enjoy Facebook, it’s impossible to deny that first-generation coders didn’t have our best interests in mind.

No, this isn’t a how-to book. It’s a vision of what Golden Krishna believes computers should be capable of. It’s a manifesto for future designers to apply themselves to making technology simpler for us, not dominant over us. It’s a vision of a future in which I’d willingly live.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Is Any Literature Ever Truly "Original"?

My recent review of Chris Cander’s Whisper Hollow included this phrase: “Boring, derivative, or needy novels are an active imposition.” This made no particular waves on my blog. However, when I cross-posted the review to, I received the following, frankly bizarre response:
It bothers me when a work is labeled "derivative". Does it mean that no other writer can ever have a situation that is similar to what was previously written? Good heavens, the sheer volume of fiction out there would seem to prohibit that.
This particular commentator also took exception to me characterizing a particularly predictable scene as “wheezy,” giving me a lecture on the risks of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. So perhaps I shouldn’t take that critic’s comments too seriously. If she thinks I meant anything to do with the viewpoint characters’ lung health, she’s already reading from a set of preconceived notions I probably cannot communicate with.

However, I’ll try.

Creative writing textbooks love to hammer home the importance of originality in writing. Having gone through several texts in both undergraduate and post-graduate writing classes, besides my own spare-time reading, I’ve seen several variations on the idea that, to be worth reading, new writing should be innovative, pathbreaking, or “original.” Textbook authors love to assert, to greater or lesser degrees, that only the truly new is worth an author’s, or an audience’s, time.

These same authors persistently mock genre fiction as a mechanical recitation of the same clichés time and again. Another rocket-ship story, ho hum. For these naysayers, only self-consciously “literary” fiction is truly worth reading, and we can know a work is truly literary if it says something nobody has ever said before.

I can only assume these authors have never read any of the truly daunting mass of books emerging from today’s conglomerate-owned publishing houses. To suggest any, among that massive tsunami, truly says anything we haven’t read before, is naive at best. “Literary” and “mainstream” fiction are extremely fad-driven. That’s why we had so many incest narratives in the 1990s, mental hospital confessionals in the 2000s, and historical epics right now.

Meanwhile, sure, if you browse the genre sections at your local bookstore, there’s plenty of knockoff fiction which readers can wear like a Snuggie, never confronted by anything revolutionary, difficult, or dangerous. But authors from Dashiell Hammett to Neal Stephenson have used various genres’ accepted conventions to push risky fiction. It’s easy to miss them for the steampunk potboilers and Sherlock Holmes pastiches, but these works exist.

So. If even authors who write risk-taking, edgy fiction do so within the confines of existing genres, how can we say that any work is truly original?

We can’t. All new literature exists on a continuum with whatever has come before. My naysayer is right to ask: “how could Pygmalian, My Fair Lady, and Pretty Woman coexist in the same time warp?” They couldn’t, unless whatever comes now converses with whatever came before. No book, no work, exists without tacitly acknowledging something prior.

Still, I insist that Whisper Hollow is a derivative work. I insist this, not because it has roots in something somebody else wrote somewhere before, but because I can see what influences the author plundered to write her own. I got bored with the pages before me, not because they had visible antecedents—what doesn’t?—but because those antecedents were so well-known, I knew where scenes were headed from the very beginning.

I cannot speak for critics and literature teachers everywhere. However, I believe a work counts as “literary,” not because it’s new, but because it engages our imagination. It keeps us guessing. We may see, reading novels like Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, where Stockett drew influences from Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Harper Lee. But Stockett isn’t beholden to these influences. She took their authority, and made it her own.

Stockett’s writing is ambiguous. Though it’s superficially familiar, it keeps us guessing where she’s headed. Cander, by contrast, mimics her influences so thoroughly that we know her destination, and the path she’ll take to get there, pages in advance. When I’m tempted to catcall lines from Monty Python’s Flying Circus at an author, something’s gone deeply, seriously wrong.

So no, truly original work doesn’t exist. It can’t. If it arrived, we wouldn’t know how to process it; we’d probably mistake it for gibberish. But that doesn’t mean that derivative writing doesn’t exist. When writers slavishly ape their heroes, foreclose all ambiguity, and tell somebody else’s story, yes, Virginia, that’s “derivative.”

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Gallery of Ancient Modern

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 47
Shaun Tan, Tales From Outer Suburbia

"Eric" (click to enlarge)

Just as Tolkien famously instructed readers that they were cheating themselves by ignoring fairy stories, I believe adults miss grand opportunities by shunning picture books. Consigning them to the “children’s lit” ghetto denies us the opportunity to savor the tension existing between a well-made picture and a perfectly crafted story. This illustrated collection, a highly regarded Australian import nominally intended for youth, is a masterly surreal dreamscape that will leave readers of all ages astounded and enrapt.

Describing the stories in this collection is a fool's errand, because the magic isn't in the stories. It's in the tension between the dry, understated prose and the sweepingly epic pictures. Tan creates a thrilling, often chilling melange of influences, the sort of liminal world where fantasy has become banal that M. Night Shyamalan tries, and mostly fails, to capture. Though any seasoned reader would recognize Tan’s stories as traditional fantasy, his easygoing, unperturbed voice carries a hint of something else, wonder as almost ordinary.

"The Water Buffalo" (click to enlarge)
And his pictures are marvels of low-key spectacle. His first story, “The Water Buffalo,” about a massive animal that knows the answer to every question, seems innocent and naive at first. When he mentions that the all-knowing water buffalo just left one day, it’s easy to mistake this for mere loss of innocence. But when placed beside the image of a monolithic beast rearing up like an Easter Island Maoi, dispensing truth with silent dispassion, we realize: the Water Buffalo is God. And God’s certainty is now lost to us.

These mixed-media illustrations hint at the influence of R. Crumb, Jim Woodring, and Chris Van Allsburg.  I suspect the pictures preceded the stories, because the grand scope and stand-alone autonomy of the images is a stark contrast to the voice of the prose, deceptively timid and unsure of the world.  Readers get the sense that Shaun Tan suspects our own world is more spectacular than we realize and wants to remind us to look around with wonder in our hearts.

The pictures alone justify the price of the book. A young couple flees rampaging carnivorous televisions; a Raphael fresco of the Peaceable Kingdom conceals itself behind hanging laundry; a neighborhood is studded with towering tips of tactical nuclear weapons. My favorite features two brothers hunting the edge of the map. The illustration shows an almost nuclear landscape of chicken shacks, gas stations, discount stores, and malls. This is suburbia as a Hieronymous Bosch vision of Hell.

"Grandpa's Story" (click to enlarge)
Tan’s centerpiece, “Grandpa’s Story,” reflects the age Tan writes for. The text tells the uncomplicated story of a now-obsolete marriage ritual in which the betrothed venture into the wilderness together to cement their bond. But the eleven pages of illustrations which accompany Tan’s five pages of story bespeak something greater. The images of blighted, but somehow full, motels; of menacing hordes of wind-up penguins; of cars broken down beyond hope of a tow, imply a world where the past is a menacing foreign country.

This concept intrudes throughout Tan’s storytelling. The cover image, of a barnacled diving bell on a suburban street, reflects a tale where a diver visits an aging immigrant widow. The implication is that her past has returned, that her past has become distant from, but more powerful than, her present. “Undertow,” about a sea mammal appearing on a small city lawn, reflects modern guilt at our abuse of the world around us. The past, the distant, and the invisible are all present for Tan.

Parents should approach this book with caution. Children might find his retro images slightly disturbing, his stories oddly violent. (Some libraries list this book as “Grade 7 & Up,” as though sproutlings can’t handle it.) But parents willing to engage their students in meaningful questions and answers, and adults willing to permit Tan’s art to return them to the splendor of childhood, will find much herein to relight the spark of childhood wonder. Do not lift this book lightly; instead, embrace this book as a life-changing influence which will linger after the final page closes.

This is a book of insights for a multimedia age. Readers will find themselves paying rapt attention to illustrations, reveling in the agonizingly gorgeous tension between word and image.  Here is a book that rewards multiple readings, and may spur thoughtful discussion between parents and their kids. The stories approach at the borders of consciousness, while the art strikes with concussive force. Nearly anyone will emerge from this book thoroughly changed. A reward for readers of all ages and dispositions.